Silent screams

The corpse of someone you do not know is not necessarily a frightening or moving sight, unless some detail brings it home that this stranger was a breathing, thinking, laughing being.

It was like that at a common grave for civilians killed in the Russian bombardment of Grozny in early 1995. When I visited, on VE Day, there were about 700 dead already buried. A dozen bodies were being dug out of the rubble each day, and a Russian policeman was carrying out instant postmortems.

The victims were mainly elderly, wrapped up against the cold in clothes that were already ragged even before the dust and blood caked them. They were grey all over, lumpy, anonymised. I don’t know why, but when the policeman, Dima, thrust his gloved forefinger into one of the dead men’s mouths and pulled it aside to look at the teeth, the corpse became human again, and the shame and sadness of Russia’s state murder of its own people burned in the heart.

It was eight years ago last week that Boris Yeltsin and his ministers ordered the Russian army to restore Moscow’s control over Chechnya, a region incorporated into the Tsarist empire by force in the 19th century and mercilessly scoured by Stalin. The army failed in 1994. It is failing now. In the course of this failure, tens of thousands of civilians have been slaughtered, crippled, raped or robbed, and young chancers on both sides have come to hallow terrorism, kidnapping and murder with the cause of nationalism and religion.

There is something else which has not changed: the failure of western governments – the British government prominent among them – to treat Russia’s Chechen crimes as the hideous charge sheet against Yeltsin and his successor, Vladimir Putin, that they are. It seemed vile enough back on VE Day 1995 – the 50th anniversary of the end of the second world war – when Bill Clinton and John Major were jollying with Yeltsin in Moscow while the corpses were stacking up in mass graves in Grozny. That was a mere five months into Moscow’s struggle with Chechnya. Now, eight years on, Britain has a leader unparalleled in self-righteousness where the oppressed of the world are concerned – in Kosovo, in Iraq, in Afghanistan. On Chechnya, he is worse than silent: he is complicit in the horror by his effusive, superfluous warmth towards Putin.

Tony Blair’s reluctance to make an issue of Russia’s barbarous treatment of people it claims as its own has a cynical logic: that there has always been a more important concession to wring from Moscow, whether over cooperation on the UN security council or British oil interests in Siberia, than that they treat the Chechens better. In the past, what this has meant is Russia getting a free hand to abuse non-combatants of Chechnya in exchange for falling in line beyond its borders.

Besides being immoral, the supposed logic is false. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, western governments have overestimated the ability and willingness of Russia to act up to its great power rhetoric in obstructing western projects. The original explanations for Russia’s determination to prosecute the Chechen war no longer make sense. There are no other Russian regions interested in independence, and Chechnya’s role in the geostrategic manoeuvring for Central Asian oil is marginal.

Like Israel, Russia has benefited from Washington and London’s visceral post-September 11 hostility towards any movement which in any way involves Islam and resistance to an established order. It is true that Russia, and the civilians of Chechnya, have suffered at the hands of armed Islamist groups and Chechnya-based criminals – but the cure is proving far worse than the disease. Russia’s attempt to cast itself in Chechnya as a fighter in the war against terror long before George Bush employed the term fails to stand up. The recent hostage-taking in Moscow showed two things: first, how Russia is turning the minority criminal-Islamist element in Chechnya to increasingly desperate and dangerous acts; second, the callousness of the Russian authorities towards their own citizens. The fatal lack of care for hostages in the aftermath of the gas attack used to end the siege echoed the careless use of deadly force against citizens in Chechnya. The Chechen war looks increasingly like might for might’s sake.

The reason Blair sees no problem in cosying up to Putin is that he knows he can get away with it. The public, media and politicians never moved into a mutual spiral of outrage over Chechnya in the way they did over Bosnia and Kosovo. Yet catalogued objectively, the crimes for which Yeltsin and Putin bear ultimate responsibility mean that when Major and Blair supped with them, they dined with men very like Slobodan Milosevic.

No reliable estimate of the number of dead in the two wars has been made. Tom de Waal, of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, says that since 1994 between 50,000 and 100,000 civilians have been killed in Chechnya, in addition to 13,000-20,000 combatants – shocking numbers in a territory whose overall population is about a million.

There has been some coverage of the individual atrocities by Russian troops. But there is a strange resistance by western public consciousness to accept the scale of the indiscriminate artillery, aerial and rocket bombardment of Grozny in 1995 and 1999-2000. In each case, tens of thousands of civilians, mainly elderly and infirm, were trapped in the city.

Fred Cuny, a US aid worker later killed in Chechnya, wrote after the first bombardment: “The highest level of firing recorded in Sarajevo was 3,500 heavy detonations per day. In Grozny in early February, a colleague of mine counted 4,000 detonations per hour.”

The pattern was repeated in 1999-2000. A single rocket strike on Grozny’s market killed almost 120 people. Putin even sanctioned the use of Scud missiles against Grozny – the first and, so far, only time a ruler has fired long-range guided missiles against one of his own cities.

The mass bombardment is over for now, but Chechnya remains a place of terror, where military death squads roam by night and civilians are unprotected. Since the theatre hostage-taking, several hundred Chechen males have been abducted by the security forces. More than 100,000 refugees are still living outside the region, and are struggling against Russian attempts to force them back; a similar number are displaced inside Chechnya. In a letter to Blair in October, the US organisation Human Rights Watch said that over the last year sweep operations by Russian troops had resulted in torture, summary executions and large-scale extortion and looting. The brutality has failed to end armed resistance. Chechen fighters continue to kill Russian soldiers at an average rate, some estimates suggest, of five to 10 a day.

The British judiciary now has a chance to send Russia a signal by refusing to extradite the Chechen separatist Akhmed Zakayev; sending him to Moscow would, as the writer Sebastian Smith has pointed out, be like handing a KLA leader over to Belgrade at the height of the Kosovo crisis.

Blair may not know much about Chechnya. But he knows the British public knows little about Chechnya too, and he exploits this, without shame, to maintain his grotesque love affair with Putin. Blair has always been skilled at making it appear he is providing moral leadership when, in fact, he is responding to external pressure. A true test of moral leadership would be to take a stand on Chechnya, when neither the public, nor the media, nor the White House is really asking him to.

James Meek reported for the Guardian from the former Soviet Union from 1991-99
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